Russian President Vladimir Putin loses his war. If Ukrainians continue to liberate areas of their country from his invading army, would he use nuclear weapons as he has threatened? If so, how? And what would be the US reaction?
It is difficult to quantify the risk as a percentage. It doesn’t matter either. Given the stakes, if the odds are 10 or 40 percent, the answer would be the same: minimize the possibility of nuclear use and prepare answers in advance.
That’s what US military and intelligence leaders have been doing since the early days of the war. US intelligence is on the lookout for signs that a nuclear weapon is being prepared.
We should believe Putin when he says “this is not a bluff”. The first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict is an integral part of Russian military doctrine, as is US war plans. Unlike the US, Russia regularly practices the use of nuclear weapons and incorporates them into its conventional military exercises.
Russian military pamphlets detail how, if Russia loses a conflict, it could use nuclear weapons to force its enemy to retreat. This “escalate to de-escalate” or “escalate to win” strategy is somewhat controversial, but it is not unlike various US plans to use nuclear weapons first.
What would that look like in Ukraine? There are numerous scenarios with numerous variations, but they fall into a small number of general scenarios.
One option would be for Russia to launch a nuclear weapon over an uninhabited area – say part of the Black Sea – to demonstrate its seriousness in hopes that the West will back down.
Some scientists involved in the Manhattan Project called for such a demonstration shot as an alternative to the bombing of Japanese cities at the end of World War II. While no one would be killed and there would be no physical damage, the blast would stop the world in its tracks.
No nuclear weapon has been used in combat for 77 years. No one has seen an above-ground nuclear explosion since 1980. This explosion would not require a US nuclear response. To prevent further escalation, US President Joe Biden could call for Russia’s international isolation (China and India would be quick to distance themselves), impose extraordinarily tough new sanctions and warn of dire consequences should Russia carry out further blasts.
Russia would likely reject that option for the same reason US military leaders did in 1945: it’s not shocking enough.
Short range weapon
Russia could fire a “low-yield” nuclear weapon at a Ukrainian military target. The blast would kill hundreds or thousands and cause significant damage.
It could use any of the 10-kiloton warheads it uses on ground-launched cruise missiles, including the Iskander, which was used extensively in the war with conventional warheads.
Although this would be a massive explosion – equivalent to 10,000 tons of TNT – it would be small by nuclear standards. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was 15 kilotons; Most US and Russian nuclear warheads range from 100 to 1,000 kilotons.
Russia may have lower-yield warheads in the 1-kiloton range. This would not require US “in-kind” assistance, but some would urge it. The likely response would be a massive increase in military aid to Ukraine and possibly concerted NATO or US attacks on the Russian forces that launched the attack.
Long range weapon
Putin could increase the explosive power of the attack to 50 or 100 kilotons – or about three to six times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Tens of thousands would die, with massive damage and radiation plumes. If the target were Kyiv, it would decapitate the leadership of Ukraine.
This would almost certainly trigger a direct US or NATO response, although not likely a nuclear one. The US and NATO have sufficiently precise and powerful weapons with which they could destroy Russian forces in Ukraine. This would likely be accompanied by large scale cyber operations.
Nuclear attack on NATO
This is the most unlikely scenario. The Russian first-use doctrine includes the option to attack NATO targets. The attack could be carried out with long-range missiles or air-launched cruise missiles on Central European countries.
If the weapon’s yield were similar to that of the previous scenario, it would inflict destruction on a NATO country on a scale not seen since World War II. This could trigger a nuclear reaction.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/vladimir-putin-says-his-nuclear-threat-is-no-bluff-we-should-believe-him-42022155.html Vladimir Putin says his nuclear threat is not a bluff – we should believe him